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Eoin Colfer: 'If Rowling was the Beatles, I was the Rolling Stones'

When the Irish author created Artemis Fowl, a boy with magical powers, an anti-Harry Potter was born. Now, Colfer's moving into crime comedy. Susie Mesure meets Eoin Colfer

What with global book sales in the tens of millions, headline festival appearances, hotly tipped comedy gigs, a musical and potentially two Hollywood blockbusters to his name, I'm expecting something pretty special from the Irish writer Eoin Colfer. Not least a national gift of the gab that means I can just flick the switch on my dictaphone and sit back while the anecdotes flow.

But if the eponymous protagonist of his hit Artemis Fowl series is the consummate anti-hero, then his creator must be the ultimate anti-star. Softly spoken, down to earth and unassuming, Colfer momentarily freezes like a rabbit in the headlights on meeting me. To be fair, the brilliant spring sunshine flooding into Penguin's Thames-side offices probably had something to do with it, but there's no denying the author is not one to throw his weight around. His anecdotes need prising out rather than plugging, but that's probably for the best.

Despite selling more than 20 million copies of Artemis Fowl and counting, not to mention penning the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy sequel And Another Thing..., the modest writer claims: "I still think every time I send in a new book that it won't get accepted."

And earlier, while I take a punt on which of the two flasks on the table yields coffee, Colfer confesses that just the previous day his attempt to make his own cup of rooibos tea went awry after he poured black coffee into his cup instead of hot water – yet he drank the resulting concoction rather than make a fuss. "It gave me a kick and calmed me down at the same time," he quipped in a flash of the humour that peppers his novels and explains his unexpected transformation into a stand-up comedian – unexpected in that he surprised even himself when he launched into a comedic rant about getting held up by Robbie Williams en route to the Edinburgh Festival some years back rather than treat the audience to yet another book reading.

Colfer thinks growing up as one of five boys helped to unlock his inner comic – certainly it provided plenty of source material – but an uncanny gift of good timing also played a part. I'm talking about the sort of good timing that saw him publish his first Artemis Fowl book, 10 years ago this month, just as the Harry Potter phenomenon was peaking. Readers, writers, publishers, and agents were all equally desperate to find the next boy wizard and Artemis – a diabolically gifted 12-year-old boy who uses fairy magic in his attempt to rule the world – seemed to fit the bill.

"There was a time there, for the first two books at least, that every book," his Irish burr stressing the "every", "that came out was the next Harry Potter. It didn't matter what it was about, there'd be some connection."

Despite being a voracious reader, Colfer, 45, was a Potter virgin when he wrote the first Artemis novel – six more have since followed. (Indeed, Colfer, whose first fantasy book The Wish List predates the mighty Potter, jokes that HP still stands for "Hewlett Packard" in the author's Wexford-based house.) Which meant a banner newspaper headline asking: "Is Artemis the next Harry Potter?" that caught his eye in Dublin airport set off more than a few alarm bells. "I thought, 'Oh Christ, they're similar in some way.' So I went into the same bookstore and bought the first Harry Potter and I read it on the plane. I enjoyed it immensely but I was very relieved that they weren't the same. I mean, there's a 12-year-old boy and magic and that's about it."

He pauses. "But I think what helped me more was that Artemis became the anti-Harry Potter. If J K was the Beatles, I was the Rolling Stones or something. That kept it alive because you can only be the next Harry Potter for so many books." This makes Colfer infinitely cooler than Rowling, although he is too modest to point that out explicitly.

He is happy, however, to admit to being lucky. Although his first few children's books had sold moderately well in Ireland, it was only with Artemis that he broke out of his home market. And even then it was only down to his wife, Jackie, and the peer pressure of the combined Colfer clan, forcing him to find an agent. So great was the Potter clamour that Colfer also sold the film rights to the triumvirate of Miramax, Disney and Tribeca Film before the first book had even come out.

That said, he's still waiting for the film to materialise: the script, co-written with the My Left Foot director Jim Sheridan, is ready but the studios are still tussling over the format. He's hopeful, though, to have some news within a couple of weeks. "Sheridan is in LA as we speak trying to get it unblocked." If they get their way, and the film is mainly live action, he'd like Saoirse Ronan to play the fairy hero, Captain Holly Short, who works for the fairies' Lower Elements Police (recon) division, or LEP (recon).

Another bonus, Colfer says, is that Rowling's wizard "made reading trendy". He adds: "Plus the thing about reading is that if you are hooked, you're not going to stop just because one series is over; you're going to go and find something else. So I think a lot of people, while waiting for the next Harry Potter, would pick up Artemis, or Percy Jackson, or whatever."

Notwithstanding the battle books face with computer games and the like for kids' eye time, Colfer reckons reading among children is on the rise. Certainly, he is much in demand: after we're done he's off to Leeds to talk at a festival there; then it's on to Winchester, then Oxford – where you can catch him today. And if any despairing parent doesn't believe him, well, the former teacher has some words of advice.

"You have to be very careful about how you try to infiltrate kids' time with books. You want them to come to reading as a gift; something that's as entertaining as playing PlayStation or watching TV, or more so in my opinion. And the way to do that is not to try to compete with these things, because you can't. I think you need to embrace the new technologies that are coming along, the eBooks, and so on, and maybe just try to get a book in for 20 minutes a day. If you say to your kids, 'that's it; no more TV for you; you have to read a book,' you are basically dooming literature for that child ... so you have to do it sneakily."

Colfer owes his own literary appetite to his parents, both of whom were teachers. Not to mention published authors: his father writes history books and his mother, a drama teacher, plays and poetry. "It was very natural to go home and paint a picture or write a story; my dad is a painter too. When I went to school I was already reading and writing. In fact, I was offended that the other kids couldn't." As for whether any of his other brothers write now, Colfer concedes that one of them "might like to" but that it's "difficult", given his success. "It would be like being Mick Jagger's brother, who's also a singer," he says, continuing his Stones analogy. "Not that I'm as successful as Mick Jagger," he adds, in customarily self-deprecating fashion.

Of his own sons, the teenager Finn and eight-year-old Sean, it's the younger that is more into books even though Finn has the literary namesake: Colfer's ultimate literary anti-hero, the truant-playing, pipe-smoking Huckleberry Finn. Unlike his parents, he and Jackie stopped at two. "Although it feels like 12," he adds, admitting that Finn feels like 11 wrapped into one. His parents' five may sound like a lot, but in 1960s Ireland, a big brood was commonplace. In fact, five barely counted. "Protestants, people would say!"

For all those mums and dads who are Colfer fans, not forgetting the ones he picked up with And Another Thing ..., next month is a biggie for the writer: it sees the publication of Plugged, his second foray into the adult fiction market. He hopes the story of a New Jersey bouncer who winds up with half a head of hair plugs after his surgeon goes missing will tap the crime noir market, not least because "the crime readership is the biggest readership in the world; so if you can get in there...," he breaks off for a momentary daydream. "I mean I'd love to write a series of books about this guy but I'll have to wait and see."

The book is unusual because it's funny, although Colfer says he originally tried to write it straight. "He was initially very much the implacable hero, in the Lee Marvin type, out for revenge, no messing around. But I couldn't sustain it. It just felt like I was trying to write someone else's book. Then one joke got in, and then another one. Initially the character wasn't the brightest guy, but then I started to leak in a bit of psychology and he became more knowing and aware of his own foibles, so I had to go back and change it all and make it much funnier." He is full of ideas for future adventures, but adds: "It's a very fickle world. The public might decide there's already a funny crime writer so we don't want you."

Colfer wouldn't be Colfer if he were already counting his chickens, but given that his Hitchhikers tome was "universally hated" before it came out but loved once it did, he could well have another hit series on his hands once he writes his eighth, and final, Artemis Fowl book later this year.

Curriculum vitae: In a class of his own...

14 May 1965 Eoin Colfer born in Wexford, Ireland, to parents who are teachers. One of five brothers.

1975-82 Attends the all-male Christian Brothers School.

1986 Qualifies as a primary school teacher and returns to Wexford to teach.

1991 Marries Jackie Power.

1992-1996 The couple leave Ireland to work in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Italy. Colfer starts writing.

1998 First book Benny and Omar is published, based on his experiences in Tunisia. Sequels Benny and Babe and Going Potty follow.

2000 Artemis Fowl secures the biggest advance for an unknown children's author with Penguin.

2001 Artemis Fowl is published. Colfer resigns from teaching.

2004 Colfer becomes first author to win the Herald Angel Award for Performance at the Edinburgh Fringe for his solo show.

2008 Douglas Adams's widow, Jane Belson, commissions Colfer to write the sixth book in the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy series. And Another Thing... is published in 2009.

2011 Publishes Plugged, his first adult fiction novel.